History of shotgun houses

shotgun house

To shoot a house

Cheri drives the car slowly along the streets of Louisville. We only have one hour, then she has to go to work. I roll down the window, put my neatly folded jacket on it in order to support my camera. I am trying to take photos of the neighborhood from the car window. It is hard while the car is moving. I am painfully aware that most of them will be useless. I still feel I have to try.
It is a warm and sunny day. There is a gentle breeze filling the van, from open windows. The thermometer shows 80 F, it is hard to believe that. Here I am still carrying a jacket, just incase gets colder and starts raining. How silly I am, this is not Portland, it does not rain here out of blue. The color of trees are definitely brighter here. I never knew how blue grass can be so pretty. We pass large Victorian houses with expansive gardens.

I appreciate that she drives me around, I would not know how to come here by bus. This is America, the bus system is a bit pathetic compare to Europe. Even you when you find a bus to get on, you are the limited in the areas and time you can go. American loves cars, not public transportation.
If you visit a city, you either rent a car or taxi to see around. If you want to walk around, that is a whole new level adds to complexity. You might not even find sidewalks, or see anybody is walking around. Streets are deserted, I still did not get used to see ghost town effect when I walk by myself. I find it odd, am I the only one really want to discover cities by walking?

“Where are we going?” I asked as we pass by cute small houses, foundations are made of brick, rest is constructed of wood.

“You have to see this, I will take you to Portland” she says. She seems cheerful this morning. She smiles, wind moves her short blonde hair.
“Portland? I came from there two days ago. Is there another Portland in Louisville?” I asked. I find the name entertaining. There are two cities named Portland. One is in Oregon, where I live and the other one in Maine. I like to see that one someday. I assume wherever there a port, you might find area called Portland then.

“What is so special about this Portland?”
“Shotgun houses” she says sharply.”
“What do you mean?” I asked a bit confused. What kind of name is that?
I pay attention to road a few minutes. One after another, I see small narrow, façades, a bit beaten, having seen better days. We are heading towards the Ohio River.
Shotgun houses have similar features: all narrow, built on top of brick walls and lack of hallway.

And then also have individual character, some have a porch in the front, some just awnings. They are colorful. Some white washed wood, some painted bright colors, here and there you can see damaged wood underneath faded paintings. I see a few swings on the porches. Some had wooden chairs only. French embellishments around windows. I see gingerbread design towards the roof. White columns on the sides, elegant trims, wood ornaments around windows definitely influence of French architecture.

I would say they looked pretty if they did not look so worn out. They need serious restorations.

“We call them shotgun houses. You see, if you shoot thru the front door, it will go clean through, out the backdoor, without hitting anything. It is that straight.”

“That’s interesting,” I say. It makes no sense to me. Why would I shoot my house to prove how straight the house is? Am I crazy? Didn’t they have measurement tapes back then? Apparently Americans love guns along with their cars. Perhaps it is an urban legend?

She drove around a few streets. When we stop at a red light, I see an old African American man coming out on to the porch, siting on a vintage wicker chair, then lighting a cigarette.

Decoration of façades are different. Color of these houses also varies. When we are on Owen Street, I tell Cheri, “Drop me here, let me take a decent shot of this red building at least.”
She nods and drives away. I walk around the bright red painted building. This one is quite different. Not because it is well taking care of it, no it is not one floor. More like one and half floor and build of red brick. White small windows look very attractive on it. Even the side of the building has small windows. Instead of wooden fence by the side, it is open with tall green grass surrounds the building.
I stood on the corner to photograph this is impressive shotgun house. It did not have a porch but white awnings on top of the front door and the window which looked very cute.
I hear a honk, and hurry to go back the street to jump into the van.

We chat non-stop till we arrive back at her flat. She drops me in front of the apartment and leaves. I pick the key from underneath of the matt and enter house. I feel a bit surprised by the fact that, they hide their house key underneath the mat. So it does not only happen in movies. I know they live in a middle class neighborhood, it is safe here. I still find it quite relaxing to feel: ‘that safe’ in a city.

No one is at home. Kids are at school. Cheri and Teri are at work. The apartment has thick brick walls, which keep the house cold in summer and winter. Instead of going outside take more photos of houses I go into the kitchen and cook.

I make a traditional a Turkish dish, lentil balls, I know that they like to eat that. After I finish cooking, I go to the large balcony, I sat on a white swing. I have shotgun houses in my mind. They remind me somehow narrow houses on the canals of Holland. The long skinny house type. Shotgun houses are only 12 feet wide. I remember seeing even narrower ones in Amsterdam. One of the most famous is the building at Singel 7. The white building has a width of only about 3 Ft., 3 in., the house is barely wider than its own front door. They resemble each other. Of course shotgun houses in US mostly made of wood, in Europe narrow houses are bricks. However it was not always like that. The original medieval Amsterdam buildings were made of wood. However in 1421 and 1452 the city destroyed by huge fire. In 1669, timber construction was banned, so new houses constructed by bricks.

As I start to read about shotgun houses, I learn that they have different styles. One-story freestanding shotgun house is called single shotgun. Two stories, double-barrel shotgun ( two shotgun house put together under one roof, and sharing a central wall ), one and half floor it is called camelback shotgun house. Mainly built around Southern part of United States.

I am curious where the name came from? I found two theories.
First is about paying less tax. In the 1800s, property taxes were based on lot frontage. Builders began building long, narrow houses on very narrow lots to lower property taxes. In New Orleans if they build 12 feet wide house, their real estate tax based on frontage rather than square footage. However some historian opposed this theory, because of the lack of proof of tax document.

I still find this reasonable possibility. Always follow the money.
Come to think of it, perhaps more likely scenario is that in narrow urban lots you can build more houses.
Just like in Amsterdam, the property tax is directly related to the width of the house, and the land price is expensive in this waterside city. Well, early shotgun houses are developed beginning of 1800, around rivers such as Mississippi.

So why Amsterdam narrow houses similar to shotgun houses in America in my mind? Simple actually; the poorer the people are, the narrower their houses are. Not because of their similar design, it is more like who lived in them. Generally not rich!

The second theory is based on the people who built and lived in them. Shogun houses in New Orleans were built by blacks who came from Haiti. The capital city of Haiti, Port-au-Prince had similar houses.

Haiti till beginning of 1800 was French colony. Many slaves as well as free black people came to Haiti from Africa. They, later on immigrate to New Orleans around 1810. They build shotgun houses all around. Why so many Haitians end up in Louisiana? Not just because they work on commercial boats. They were running for their lives. When you read history, you can find very interesting details. You can also learn that history repeats quite often.

Let’s look at numbers. According to 1788 census, there was 28.000 whites, 22.000 free blacks and around 500.000 slaves in Haiti.

Still waiting for the origin of the name? First we need to dig more into the history. Just bare with me. Haiti is located at between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, west of the Dominican Republic. The total area covers 27,750 sq. km ( 10,714 sq. miles )and shares 244 miles borders with Dominican Republic.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines is originally from west Africa. He served as an officer in the French army when the colony was trying to withstand Spanish and British incursions. He was Toussaint Louverture’s principal lieutenant, and he led many successful engagements. Dessalines became the leader of the Haitian revolution inspired by the French Revolution of 1789. He battles with Spaniards for French in St. Dominique. He wins and he decides to battle against Napoleon too. He creates the first ever successful slave army revolution. This part is extremely entertaining because he calls himself ‘governor-for-life’.
Does that sound familiar to you? Such life; there is always greed embedded on any victory. The bloody war takes between 1802 to 1804 and Dessalines. He declares himself as emperor for Haiti. As soon as he gains the power, he decided to massacre in the island, since he does not trust white French people. Even children are subject to killing. In two months white people get killed by blacks, even people married with whites have children were losing their lives . He takes all white people’s properties. During this massacre thousands of people run away from Haiti, moving to New Orleans.

Perhaps you wonder what happened to founder of Haiti at the end. Nationalist Dessalines was assassinated by rivals in 1806. His governor-for-life situation only last 2 years. I guess sometimes you may run out of your luck quickly.

Let’s go back to story of shotgun houses again. African Americans who came from Haiti had language differences. Arawak indians were building shotgun houses, as well as Creole blacks. They were asked what is the name of the house, they answer in their language as ‘to-gun,’ which means “place of assembly”. For Americans, it sound like shotgun. Then the name sticks to this type of houses.

In 1803 when Napoleon sold Louisiana to the US, there was 1355 free blacks, in 1810 this number reaches 10,500. The whites were only 4500. They are quite outnumbered. The black culture flourish around New Orleans as well as their building styles. Too many people in the city, where they will sleep? Naturally construction business boomed. Immigrants were black, poor and in needed of quickly build simple houses. Creole blacks are creating many neighborhood with these type of building in short time with their vivid life styles. Front porches allowing sense of community, and no windows on the side of the houses gave them privacy. It was before the air conditioning era, the narrow layout, heigh roof, front and back door allowed fresh air to circulate through the home. The main character of shotgun vernacular house type is being narrow structure with no hallways. People walk through rooms to get in different areas of the house.

Do you find shotgun houses everywhere in US? No. They are mainly located in the South. The most of them are located in New Orleans, Louisiana, however you can find some inTexas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Louisville, Kentucky.

I look up the map why in these areas. I see they were built around rivers in hot climates. In 18th and 19th centuries, commercial river transportation was very important. African Americans lived in these region, worked in these ships. Affordable housing was a solution for them as well as allowing them bringing and developing their cultural life style. Simplicity of construction made it easy to create similar buildings.
In 1920s working class American moved and lived in these houses. They add more decorative parts eventually . Columns on the porch, gingerbread decorations, windows on the side walls, elegant wooden decors under the roof, as well as wrought iron fences in the front. However in 1950s shotgun houses turn into again symbol of being poor and were forgotten.

shotgun house camelback

While I was looking at New Orleans shotgun houses photos, Cheri came to the porch. She gave me a glass, She sat down next to me in the swing.
I could hear smooth cello sound from the house. I thought girls must be back from school. The last time I saw that blue eyes little pretty girl was now a young lady who plays beautifully cello. It was definitely a sign that me getting older. I did not mind I felt happy with them. I love this family.

I was going to ask what kind of drink is this, if Teri did not show up. He was carrying a big plate full of lentil balls in it. He was eating with a happy face.
“This is so delicious” he said in his broken Turkish.
“Since you are in Kentucky, you should drink Bourbon” he said.
I do not drink much. However one should try everything at least once before you die, is my motto.

We drink our bourbon on the porch altogether. I ask him about shotgun houses.

“My sister owns one and rents it out.” He says. The he adds “ We should go to Tupelo, Mississippi.
We should do road trip again, like the old days.”
“What is in Tupelo?” I ask.
“Elvis Presley was born in a shotgun house, you need see it,” he says.
“Why not? Where are we going tomorrow?”
Cheri replies “ Keenland, you need to bet on a horse! You missed the big race, the Kentucky derby. But at least you see Lexington, blue grass and gorgeous horses.”

“I go where ever you take me” I say, and sip my bourbon.
It tastes like the cough syrup I used to drink when I was a little girl. I just swallow and do not say anything about it.



Shotgun houses: Narrow structure of houses without hallway. The rooms open into each other, with the doorways all in a row. Generally there is a porch in the front.The halls of the house dissects the house. Kitchens were usually in the rear of the house. A typical single Shotgun, has a long narrow structure 1 room wide and 3 to 5 rooms deep, with each room opening onto the next. The single façade consists of a door and window, usually shuttered, which may or may not feature a porch or deep overhang to offer protection from the weather. Creole style shotgun houses have a wooden frame with bricks used for support. Shotgun houses are usually not more than 12 to 14 feet wide.

Afro-American folk art and crafts by William R. Ferris

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